Inducted into the Dayton Theatre Hall of Fame, October 22, 2002.
The first time I saw Ken Hardin on stage 41 years ago, he was playing opposite Connie Braun at the old Carriage House of the Guild in I am a Camera. Typically Ken, as Director, he felt he needed a strong actor...so naturally, he cast himself.
Jean Rice who was there, tells me that Ken's first community theater appearance as a teenager, was in a very minor role in a now most politically incorrect production of Uncle Tom's Cabin by the Guild in 1948. Gee, cutting edge drama even then. She says that his speech was incomprehensible even when he slowed down to a normal speed, which was not often. This coupled with the fact that he was inordinately tall and skinny--the other actors called him "Bones"--led to a most modest debut.
But he persevered and by 1954, audiences howled nightly at his reading of Matthew Skitz in The Lady's Not for Burning. Despite the fact that the role was a very small one and the Guild only gave one season award in those days, he was voted the Murphy Award for Best Performance by an actor that season. It was the first of many at the Guild as well as the state level competitions of the Ohio Community Theater Association.
Over the years, Kenny gave Guild audiences a wide range of portrayals--the lead in A School for Scandal, Henry VIII in Royal Gambit, James Tyrone in Long Days Journey into Night, Henry Higgins in Pygmalion, Willie Lohman in Death of a Salesman, Henry II in The Lion in Winter and my own personal favorite, the title role in Da to name but a few...because we could take the rest of the evening and might still miss some.
It occurs to me that it is a hollow tribute to roll call these performances because there is no way to capture the larger than life vitality that propelled Ken and the charisma that was a part of every moment he was on stage. And there is no way to chronicle the sense of his creative juices flowing at a rehearsal--always highlighted by a razor sharp wit. Better throw in a large measure of chutzpah too. If you never knew Ken...think tornado, think raging surf. Put simply, audiences could not take their eyes off him.
Ken was a fine Director as well with many productions to his credit. What he was not so good at was building sets which the directors mostly did for their own shows during his years. He never believed in putting in three nails when two would do. He never believed in building something if a found object could be made to work.
One of the favorite stories at the Guild is about the time Ken directed the old Marx Brothers chestnut, Room Service. (Ken had a weakness for the comedies of the 30s and 40s.) The setting is a simple hotel room with one door to exit the room and a closet. Seems as though, the set was so poorly put together that one performance an actor could not get the door open to leave so that in desperation he exited through the closet!
Ken would certainly be remembered at the Guild for his acting alone, but in fact he made lasting contributions as a director, producer, board member, party thrower supreme, and in his last production in Dayton in 1987, as a playwright as well.
In one of the Guild's old costume rooms, there is a rack holding the suits that Ken carefully donated to the Guild so that he would be assured of a costume that fit his large frame. I was there the other day and the thought crossed my mind--they've been unworn in all the years since Ken left us--as yet no one's come by that can fill his place.
-- Ralph Dennler